Category Archives: Bird courtship

Family of pigeons, doves features one famous member

Vivian Tester of Bristol, Tennessee, sent me an email seeking help with a pigeon problem.

“I need your advice on trying to keep the pigeons off my bird feeders,” Vivian wrote. “They are chasing off the birds I want to feed and devouring all the seed. My neighbor says they are doves but whatever they are, they are annoying. I don’t know if the squirrel-proof feeder would work or not. I would appreciate any help.”

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Photo of a rock pigeon by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I recommended that Vivian offer only black oil sunflower seeds to see if that might can discourage the unwanted guests. While pigeons will eat sunflower seeds, they much prefer smaller seeds like milo and millet often found in mixed seed packages. If their preferred food source dries up, they may be convinced to move elsewhere.

Stopping feeding for a trial period is another possibility. Remove food for a week and then slowly start offering seeds again. If the pigeons have moved to other feeding grounds, perhaps they will be slow to return.

It’s a tough problem to solve. Although some feeders can be designed to prevent a large bird like a pigeon or dove from perching, the birds are going to still make the attempt. In doing so, they knock seed to the ground below and will happily feed on the spillage. The best option for avoiding pigeons would be to use tube feeders designed for minimal spillage if jostled. Doves and pigeons prefer to feed on the ground, so scattering seeds there, intentionally or inadvertently, is an invitation for flocks to gather.

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Photo by Jean Potter • The widespread rock pigeon is one of the most successful members of the bird family Columbidae, which is comprised of some 310 species of doves and pigeons. One of the most famous representatives of the family is the dodo, an extinct relative of such common birds as the mourning dove and rock pigeon.

Nature, too, offers a solution. Several species of raptors prey readily on doves and pigeons. Peregrine falcons and Cooper’s hawks are two effective controls on such birds, but it is not easy to issue an invitation for one of these birds to take up residence in your yard.

The two mostly likely offenders in the region are the mourning dove and the rock pigeon. Mourning doves are an abundant native species at home in both rural areas and suburbs. The rock pigeon is not a native species but has thrived in the United States since it first arrived with early colonists from Europe. Rock pigeons are mostly a problem for people attempting to feed birds in urban and suburban areas.

Pigeons and doves constitute the animal family Columbidae, which is comprised of some 310 species. One of the most famous members of this family is the extinct bird known as the dodo. The well-known story of the dodo doesn’t often make reference to the relations this bird had to living doves and pigeons.

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In the lower right corner of this illustration, a dodo is visible along with such birds                        as macaws, cranes, and even a wild turkey. Titled “Landscape with Birds,” this painting            was done by artist Roelant Savery in 1628.

Early scientists did not know what to make of the dodo and theorized that the unusual flightless bird was everything from a small ostrich to flightless versions of an albatross or a vulture. Johannes Theodor Reinhardt, a zoologist from Denmark, hinted at the dodo’s relationship to the world’s pigeons and doves as early as 1842. At first his theory was ridiculed, but other biologists and zoologists eventually came to accept the fact that the dodo was indeed a large, flightless pigeon.

The dodo stood a few inches over three feet tall and could weigh close to 40 pounds. Most of what is known about the dodo comes from paintings and drawings of the bird made by early explorers in the 17th century. Some of the humans who observed the bird also left behind valuable written accounts. First discovered by Dutch sailors who visited the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius in 1598, the dodo became extinct only 64 years later. So about the same time the rock pigeon was establishing itself as an introduced species of bird in North America, around the world one of its cousins slid quietly into extinction.800px-Van_den_Venne_dodo 2

The dodo has acquired a reputation in popular culture as slow-witted, lethargic, fat, clumsy and stupid, dooming the bird as a creature too ill-suited to exist. Today, most scientists believe that the dodo was adapted perfectly to its island habitat. Having evolved as a flightless bird, the arrival of humans in its paradise meant its doom. The reputation for stupidity is unfair. Having never encountered humans, dodos did not have an instinctive fear of them. This lack of fear made it easy for the early explorers of their island home to quickly render them extinct.

Modern science has even pinpointed the dodo’s closest living relative. Thanks to DNA analysis, the Nicobar pigeon of southeast Asia has been identified as the closest relation of the dodo. The Nicobar pigeon is much smaller (only 16 inches long) and, unlike its famous relative, is capable of flight. This pigeon feeds mostly on fruit and seed. When grain of any kind is available, it will also make use of such a food source.

Most contemporary sources reveal that the dodo enjoyed a diet rich in fruit, but modern biologists speculate the dodo probably also foraged for nuts, seeds and tubers. It’s ironic that the dodos were slaughtered to extinction to provide food for early explorers of their island. An English explorer by the name of Sir Thomas Herbert recognized the dodo’s exploitation as a food source, but disparaged the bird’s taste. “To the delicate they are offensive and of no nourishment,” Herbert wrote in his published work, “A Relation of Some Years Travel into Africa and the Greater Asia.”

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This sketch, completed in 1634 by Sir Thomas Herbert, shows a broad-billed parrot, a red rail and possibly one of the last dodos to exist on the planet. Herbert described the dodo as a rather poor food source for early explorers to its island home. 

Like the pigeons that have become a scourge on Vivian’s feeders, it’s very likely that, had they survived, dodos might visit feeders today on the island of Mauritius. For the most part, the world’s doves and pigeons are considered successful birds.

In the United States, some other native doves include the widespread mourning dove, as well as white-winged dove, common ground dove and Inca dove. The Eurasian collared-dove, introduced into the Bahamas and Florida, has now spread extensively into the United States and is known to have established populations through northeast Tennessee and southwest Virginia.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A mourning dove stretches a wing while perched on a feeder.

Some descriptive names for some of the world’s doves include purple-winged ground dove, lemon dove, zebra dove, ochre-bellied dove, tambourine dove, white-faced cuckoo-dove, ring-necked dove, little cuckoo-dove and sapphire quail-dove. Pigeons have also been bestowed with such colorful names as snow pigeon, speckled pigeon, yellow-eyed pigeon, pale-capped pigeon, metallic pigeon, crested pigeon, pink pigeon and squatter pigeon.

We all like to attract as many birds as possible to our yards and gardens. A variety of food will help achieve that objective. Be aware, though, that such free buffets will also encourage messy birds like pigeons that make feathered pigs of themselves and almost always overstay their welcome. There’s also the option to admire pigeons and doves as survivors with a lineage worthy of some admiration. Hang some tube feeders accessible to smaller songbirds but toss some seeds into a corner of the yard for the ground-feeding pigeons and doves. They’re birds, too, after all.

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English naturalists dissected a dodo skull, shown in this sketch, in 1848 to help prove the relationship of the dodo to pigeons.

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Birds bring their best game when seeking mates

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Photo by Dave Menke/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • A pair of Clark’s Grebes displays in a courtship ritual known as “rushing” or “weed dance.” Birds use a variety of strategies to attract and keep mates.

Most birds don’t bring a box of chocolates or a bouquet of roses when they take up courtship of a prospective mate, but birds have several equivalent behaviors that they employ to attract the attentions of the opposite sex. Since we recently celebrated Valentine’s Day, I thought a look at some of the more unusual courtship rituals of some of our feathered friends would be appropriate.

Birds bearing gifts. Many birds present small trinkets to a prospective mate. For instance, many male penguins make a present of a stone or pebble to female penguins. There could be more than a simple bribe behind this gift. Female penguins don’t build elaborate nests. In fact, a scrape on the bare ground, perhaps encircled by a collection of pebbles, marks the extent of their nest construction. So, the perfect pebble could be the way to winning a female penguin’s heart.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Northern Cardinals are beginning to pair together in anticipation of the spring nesting season.

The way to the heart is through the stomach. Observant birders may have witnessed a male Northern cardinal slip a female a morsel of food, such as a peanut or a shelled sunflower kernel. It’s a marked change for this bird. During the winter months, a male cardinal is more likely to chase a female away from a feeder rather than share food with her. However, as spring approaches, his behavior undergoes a change and he becomes content to feed next to a female cardinal, often slipping her some choice tidbits.

May I have this dance? Many species of birds perform elaborate and ritualistic dance displays. Among birds known for tripping the light fantastic are flamingoes, cranes, grouse and grebes. Cranes are one of the oldest families of birds on earth. They’re also some of the most accomplished dancers in the animal kingdom. Pairs perform very ritualistic dances that, if the performers were human, would no doubt require the services of an accomplished choreographer. Cranes mate for life and the ritual of dancing is a way to strengthen the bonds between a mated pair. The ability to dance is, apparently, not instinctive. Young cranes must practice their dance moves, a process that can take years before they master the elaborate dance.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A pair of Mallards find a thawed spot on a frozen pond.

Synchronized swimming. While many birds dance to impress a mate or strengthen pair bonds, grebes perform a dance that takes place completely on the surface of the water. A pair will engage in this intricate performance, perfectly mirroring the moves of the other as they literally race across the surface of the water. These dances by grebes are also known as “rushing” or “weed dance.” It’s called as a weed dance because at the culmination of the ritual, the birds usually hold some type of aquatic plants in their bills while racing swiftly over the surface of the water. Pairs that perform well together stay together, building a nest and raising young.

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An 18th century illustration of the habits of the Bower Birds.

Good housekeeping seal of approval. The tropical family of bowerbirds are famous for complex nests built by males and then decorated with bright and colorful objects to catch the eye of a potential mate. The nest of these birds are actually referred to a “bower.” Usually constructed on the ground, the male will line the approach to the bower with items such as shells, leaves, flowers, feathers, stones, berries, and even discarded garbage, including plastic scraps or bits of glass. Unusually odd items pressed into these decorative displays have included coins and spent rifle shells. This habit of male bowerbirds must rank as the ultimate in trying to impress a mate with shiny bling.

These are just a few of the inventive ways that birds go about attracting and keeping mates. Perhaps you followed some of these tips from our feathered friends to ensure you had a great Valentine’s Day.

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To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Stevens on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. He is always posting about local birds, wildlife, flowers, insects and much more. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.